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Sometimes Mold Knows More About Networks Than Humans


Many advanced network problems that some of the world’s top engineers works on, such as developing the paths for the highways across the US or the UK, or deciding where to build the railways in Tokyo, consume thousands of hours of time. It turns out that brainless slime mold is able to replicate remarkably similar results as our top engineers! Experiments were done where food (oat flakes) were placed in proportion to the size of different cities on a map that represented the appropriate landscape. For example, a map of the US with oat flakes placed a the location of New York City, LA, and other major, with the size of he flakes based on population. A slime mold was then placed on the small map, and within a few days the slime mold had created a series of nutrient highways nearly identical to the map of the highways across our country! Similar results were found for the UK and for the subway system of Tokyo. Mark Fricker of the University of Oxford says describes the phenomenon well, saying “the slime mold has no central brain or indeed any awareness of the overall problem it is trying to solve, but manages to produce a structure with similar properties to the real rail network.” The slime mold’s incredible ability has sparked a new biology inspired mathematical model that is not often used to try and solve difficult network problems like this. It is rather humbling for humanity to see a brainless organism find a solution to a problem that takes some of our smartest engineers to solve.


I really liked this article because it reminded me of two main things. One was that networks problems at the most advanced level can be extremely difficult to solve. Developing a series of of paths in a railway system around a major subway system like Tokyo is an incredibly difficult problem. This reminded me of how this course really just scratches the surface of the challenges presented by networks. The other thing it reminded me of was how our understanding of networks is still very much so being developed. I thought that both of these reminders were a nice way to close out classes. Even in the 21st century sometimes mold knows more about math and optimization than we do.


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